Summer is the season for beef. Steaks on the grill, homemade hamburgers, flame-kissed kebabs with seasonal vegetables… nom nom nom! Our mouths are watering just thinking about it. Summer simply wouldn’t be the same without the sizzle of succulent meat over a backyard barbecue.
Now don’t get us wrong. This celebration of meat does not come without a healthy dose of social and environmental consciousness. In this day and age, we meat eaters are questioning with increasing frequency where our beef comes from. Ethical farming practices, environmental sustainability and supporting local food producers are all issues which are rising to the forefront of the public mindset. We are thrilled to see that our local farms, like Heatherlea Farm Shoppe in Caledon, are not merely responding to this shift in consumer values, they’re leading the charge.
Heatherlea’s journey: then to now
Heatherlea Acres farm is owned and operated by Gord and Pat McArthur. Their goal is to raise and craft the highest quality artisan meats, meals, snacks and treats using clean ingredients and local products. Visitors to the farm can shop the market for frozen meats, baked goods and favourites from other local businesses. They can also stop in at Heatherlea’s onsite butcher to purchase fresh meat. “We’re a unique operation in that sense,” says Melinda McArthur, Pat and Gord’s daughter-in-law. “Not too many people get to have the experience of talking directly with both the butcher and the farmer in one stop, or get the opportunity to ask questions about how the animal was raised.”
At the forefront of Heatherlea’s mission—nay, its raison d’etre—is the promotion of awareness surrounding healthy eating and sustainable farming. “Not only are our animals healthy, but they’re treated well,” insists Pat. “If you come and Farmer Gord is around, he’ll take you out to the pasture to see the animals and answer any questions you might have. We want to be open with our customers.”
Interestingly, Heatherlea’s roots are founded in dairy farming. But Farmer Gord, whose passion was beef, converted the operation when he took over. In 2000, the couple purchased its first herd of angus cattle.
There were a few serendipitous events which shaped Heatherlea into the farm shoppe we know and love today. To begin with, the early 2000s were when the local food movement began gaining traction, which gave small, family farms a fighting chance at surviving in an increasingly commercial climate. Around this time as well, Pat became interested in the idea of what introducing value-add products and services could do for small-scale farms and local food producers, and took a course to increase her knowledge.
Also, from 2007 to 2009, the McArthurs operated a bed and breakfast on the property. What they found was that visitors to their bed and breakfast would inquire about whether or not the couple sold their meat to the public. “We always sold our beef to our family,” Pat recalls. “We also knew that the market for larger meat purchases was declining. So, we started scaling back those larger sales volumes to smaller packages, and we began to add other sustainably-raised meats like chicken, lamb and pork.”
The result was an operation open to the public which was run as a back-room store. When Melinda joined the family team in 2009, Heatherlea evolved further. In 2016, the current shop was built and opened, and today it offers an on-site butcher, café and market, and even home delivery of curated butcher boxes.
But what’s so special about Ontario beef?
When it comes to beef farming, the ethics and resulting health impacts of how cattle are raised is a widely discussed topic in our modern, socially conscious society. Terms like grass-fed, free range and hormone-free are commonly “uddered” (lol… see what we did there?). But with all this discourse comes a certain amount of confusion and misinformation. This is what Heatherlea actively seeks to rectify for its customers: what ethical beef farming in Ontario really looks like.
Here’s the truth of the matter—the skinny, if you will, on rearing hefty cows: unfortunately, raising 100% grass-fed beef in Ontario is not sustainable for our small-scale farmers. As we Canadians all know, wintertime in Canada is cold—too cold to allow beef to graze on fresh pastures all year round. If farmers want to provide a completely grass-fed product, they must feed their livestock hay in winter when fresh grass is not available. “That can be very costly for a small farmer,” Melinda notes. “It’s also very difficult to get the animal up to weight in that way.”
In order to make beef farming sustainable, Heatherlea raises its cattle on a combination of grass and grain—pastures in the warm months when fresh grass is available, and grain (including a certain percentage of corn), much of which Heatherlea grows itself, for finishing rations. This results in a locally raised product which both tastes great, and which you can feel proud about serving to your family.
“We’re one of the few farms left that dry-age our beef,” Pat adds proudly. “It’s not what you typically find in [grocery stores]. Most of that beef undergoes a three-day wet-aged process, which results in a totally different product. Dry-aging enhances the flavour and makes the meat far more tender. It’s a time-consuming process, but well worth the price, which we do try to keep in line with market prices as much as possible.”
Support Local: Visit Heatherlea Farm Shoppe
We love supporting our local farmers and everything they do to keep local food production alive in Ontario. Know where your food comes from and who is producing it. Visit the McArthur Family at Heatherlea Farm Shoppe: 17049 Winston Churchill Blvd., Caledon.
Story by Katherine Ryalen